Britney Denton, one of six FAMU students who filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of Florida. (Courtesy photo)

Three years ago, Nyabi Stevens followed in her grandparents’ footsteps when she matriculated to Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (FAMU) to pursue psychology and African-American studies. 

The Tallahassee native has since maintained a full course load while tutoring elementary school students and joining the psychology club, the National Society of Collegiate Scholars and the Association of Black Psychologists. 

As a testament to her HBCU pride and evolving Black consciousness, Stevens most recently became one of six plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the state of Florida for an alleged failure to provide FAMU financial support equal to that of the state’s traditionally-white institutions.   

Though she expressed excitement about her FAMU experience, Stevens lamented seeing her campus relegated to one community in Tallahassee while Florida State University (FSU) continues to expand. She also recounted instances when one of her professors delayed class by 10 minutes to boot up a computer that had been in the classroom since the professor’s days as a FAMU student. 

“We’ve been having to work with what we have. I’m not going against my school or anything but that’s what we’ve always had to do,” said Stevens, a Fort Lauderdale native. 

“By being on this case, we’re working on getting our people more than the bare minimum,” Stevens added. “FAMU doesn’t get the amount of recognition that FSU receives. That’s because of the visuals and aesthetics that can be seen.” 

In February, six Democratic members of the U.S. House called on governors, lieutenant governors and legislators in 18 states to address inequitable funding for HBCUs in the land-grant university system. Established throughout the 19th and 20th centuries under the Morrill Act, land grants facilitated the creation of colleges, including FAMU, that taught agriculture and mechanics. 

This call by Democrats came months after the state of Maryland allocated $577 million over a decade as part of a settlement in a federal lawsuit levied by HBCU alumni. Funding started in the new fiscal year with $16.8 million going to Bowie State University, $9 million going to Coppin State University, $24 million to Morgan State University and $9.7 million going to University of Maryland Eastern Shore. 

In the FAMU lawsuit, other plaintiffs include Britney Denton, Deidrick Dansby, Fayerachel Peterson, Alexander Harris, and a FAMU student who used the pseudonym of John Doe. 

These undergraduate and graduate students alleged that the state of Florida, the Board of Governors for the State University System of Florida, and Marshall M. Criser III, chancellor of the State University System of Florida didn’t provide adequate funding and support to FAMU as required by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. 

The lawsuit demands that the state of Florida establish parity in funding between HBCUs and traditionally-white institutions in Florida within the next five years. It references the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and United States v. Fordice, a 1992 court case that mandated affirmative action at eight racially-segregated universities in Mississippi. 

The Board of Governors for the State University System of Florida didn’t respond to The Informer’s inquiry about the class-action lawsuit. 

 Bobby Brown, an attorney representing the six plaintiffs, said disparate funding has taken place for several decades. Tactics, as outlined in the lawsuit, include duplication of FAMU academic programs at traditionally-white institutions, denial of funding for capital enhancements and a failure to assist in student retention.  

These count as part of what Brown described as a concoction that’s de jure segregation, or purposeful segregation by the government. He said Florida’s failure to provide equal funding and support to HBCUs has created an atmosphere where students have become emboldened to fight against racial injustice. 

“Imagine what they can do with more, especially when it’s due to them from the state,” Brown said. “It makes you stand up and do something about it. The students are part of a movement. This generation won’t allow things they feel are out of bounds without putting up a fight. They’re the type of clients we want to right this wrong that has happened for too long.” 

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Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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